Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis

by J.D. Vance
HarperCollins     2016
264 pages     Memoir

I began seeing J.D. Vance on the news circuit in the weeks prior to the election. He represented the white working class voters among the pundits and the talking heads on CNN and explained to television audiences why his "people" voted for Donald Trump. He was an eloquent spokesperson for the conservative voters that the "liberal elite" have had a hard time understanding. In an interview, he said, "for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of a life we left behind continue to chase us."

He begins Hillbilly Elegy by saying that he finds it ludicrous that anyone would be reading his book, because he hadn't done anything "great in his life." But those of us reading his book find that he has done something quite remarkable. He has laid bare the life of the working poor in a way that builds understanding and acceptance. 

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, just up the road from my sister's house in West Chester, Ohio, but it might as well be a world away. Vance's family moved en masse from Kentucky to work in the steel mills of Middletown, making more money than they could have in the hills of Kentucky, but then the jobs went away and misery ensued. The strong social ethic of the hills stayed with those transplants, and that social ethic continues to be the driving force in their lives.

Vance was raised by his grandparents and an older sister because his mother couldn't get her life together enough to care for him. His grandparents fiercely protected him, pushed him, prodded him, and threatened him. “The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future — that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.” He nearly didn't graduate from high school, but following graduation, he enlisted in the Marines and served in Iraq. Following his military service, he attended Ohio State and Yale Law School. Today, at 31,  he is a business executive, married and living in Silicon Valley.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells the difficult story of his upbringing,  and as he probes for us (and even more importantly, for himself) how he survived and figured out how to thrive, we liberal intellectuals begin to understand how those people around us, like J.D. and his family, came to feel disenfranchised and thus elected a billionaire populist to the presidency. My husband said that the book helped him understand why Michigan's rural areas went pretty solidly for Trump.

I asked my husband what he had learned from reading Hillbilly Elegy. He said that he was struck by the intense loyalty Vance feels for his family, for his grandparents (both now dead), for his sister, and even for his drug addicted mother. My husband said he respected so much how Vance could look beyond the pain of his upbringing to understand the circumstances that caused it. For instance, Vance ponders how some members of his family built stable families, held decent jobs, and maintained sound economic foundations, while his mother floundered so badly. My husband inferred, however, that there is just as much potential for painful upbringings in the lives of "so-called intellectuals" as there is in the white working class. 

At the same time that Vance speaks about how much he loves his family, he is highly critical of those people who feel that they have little control over their lives. He concludes: “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest god----ed people on this earth. But are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . I don’t know what the answer is precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

My husband and I read Hillbilly Elegy aloud, and we like everyone else we know who read it, greatly appreciated its lessons for us. We highly recommend it for its readability and its life lessons. It is easy to see why it has remained on the bestseller lists for so long.

Review in Washington Post.
J.D. Vance website.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Books for the Inauguration

My five-year-old granddaughter said to me the other day, "I watched Donald Trump on television when my mommy wasn't looking." Like she was watching porn or something!. This is an extremely sad state of affairs when a five-year-old isn't in awe of the president-elect or respectful of the office.

In this inauguration week, I want to highlight two new books I received from the publishers that speak to what I am feeling and what many in this country appear to be feeling. 

What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump's America

Edited by Dennis Johnson and Valarie Merians
Melville House   2017
224 pages     Nonfiction/Politics

Leading liberal and progressive voices speak to the chaos brought about by the election and now the inauguration of Donald Trump in the book of essays, What We Do Now. For example, in one essay,  David Cole, the legal counsel for the ACLU asserts that because Trump was elected, we must now hold him accountable. He says, "But if we now and for the next four years insist that he honor our most fundamental constitutional values, including equality, human dignity, fair process, privacy, and the rule of law, and if we organize and advocate in defense of these principles, he can and will be contained." 

There are essays by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Gloria Steinem, Dave Eggers, Cornell Brooks and many others, each essay discussing some aspect of American freedom and a blueprint for how to move forward. Progressivism, as we well know, has been dealt a huge blow, and progressives all over the country are still stunned two months after the election. These essays provide tremendous food for thought on how we can and must proceed.
My favorite is an essay by author George Saunders called The Braindead Megaphone, which comes from a book by the same name. (By the way, many of the pieces in the book have been published elsewhere.) He says,
"Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He's not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. But he's got that megaphone." And people listen.

Every essay is appropriate and thought provoking.

The Trump  Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Through What You
Hoped Would Never Happen.
by Gene Stone
Day Street Books     2017
208 pages     Nonfiction/Politics

In The Trump Survival Guide, Gene Stone gives liberals and progressives a call to action for the next four years. He begins with an historical guide to the actions of ineffective presidents of the past, and offers concrete solutions to  help those of us in despair to find ways in which we can actively be watchdogs to hold Trump and his administration accountable for the decisions that will be made in the next four years.

Stone looks at important policies of the country through several lenses—the history of the policy, what President Obama did regarding the policy, what President Trump might do, and what the average citizen can do to support, and in some cases save,  the policies that are important to them. He discusses civil rights, the economy, education, women's rights, immigration, the environment and several others. The chapters that interested me the most personally were the chapters on education, immigration, and women's rights. I particularly liked all the contact information that individuals can use to become active advocates for the policies that are most important to them. 

As for me, I am going to continue to be actively involved in immigration reform and women's rights. My little five-year-old granddaughter and her mother are going with me to the rally in Lansing, Michigan on the day after the election. My daughter, step-daughter and teenage granddaughters will be in Washington. We cannot remain silent.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10

by Ruth Ware
Scout Press     2016
340 pages     Thriller

It was a dark, very cold and snowy January day when I began The Woman in Cabin 10. I was all wrapped up in a blanket, the fire was blazing, and I was determined to put life at bay and read something totally absorbing. This was the perfect choice. What was good about The Woman in Cabin 10 was that I couldn't put the book down. It isn't great literature, but it sure did keep my heart pumping and my blood warm.  I had similar hopes when I read Ware's previous book, In A Dark, Dark Wood—and I was similarly underwhelmed, except to say that the setting is just as atmospheric in The Woman in Cabin 10 as it was In A Dark, Dark Wood. This time, however, the setting is a small cruise ship in the North Sea. 

Laura Blacklock (Lo to her friends) is a travel writer and is lucky enough to score a trip on the maiden voyage of the small ship, Aurora, to view the Northern Lights, to visit the Norwegian fjords, and the city of Trondheim. There are only ten cabins, and all but cabin 10 are filled with travel writers, photographers, and potential investors for the ship's owner, British Lord  Richard Bullmer. 

Before the voyage began, Lo experienced a robbery in her apartment; the most scary part of the robbery was that she was locked in her room for several hours. This event throws her completely off balance, so she enters the cruise ship sleepless, hung over, and anxious. We learn right away that she is an unreliable reporter, that she has a drinking problem and is dependent on anxiety medication. Almost immediately she is rattled again when she thinks that she hears a scream and someone being thrown overboard in Cabin 10, right next door to her room. Of course, no one believes her. It is a classic murder mystery setup, but in Lo's case, she cannot cease pursuing what she thinks happened, even when she is warned to stop searching for answers. Add to this the claustrophobia and the constant nausea coming from the lurching small ship, and you have a prescription for a very tense ride.

One reader suggested that the book involves a lot of gaslighting. I didn't know what that term meant, but apparently it refers to when a hysterical woman is manipulated into thinking that her own memory, perception and sanity can't be trusted. No matter how much the people on the boat try to gaslight Lo, she persists, and solves the crime. The last 50 pages or so are very tense, but the solution is a bit underwhelming and slightly disappointing. 

One of the problems I have had recently is finding anything to like about the women protagonists in mysteries that seem to be very popular. Certainly, I didn't like Rachel in The Girl on the Train, and Amy in Gone Girl, and I really didn't like the women In a Dark, Dark Wood. Now, here is another one with a truly unlikable protagonist. But, apparently they make great characters in movies, since all of these books have been made into movies. Probably The Woman in Cabin 10 will show up on the big screen as well. Ah well. So much for my opinion. 

Ruth Ware website.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Year of Needy Girls

by Patricia A. Smith
Akashic Books     2017
333 pages     Literary Fiction

Two disasters happened in my small city of Kalamazoo in 2016 that upended the city—an Uber driver went on a rampage, shot and murdered several people, and a drunk and overdosed driver plowed into a group of bicyclists, killing several as well.  How a city responds to a major problem can determine the character of the city. In the case of Kalamazoo, both compassion and outrage led to policy and city ordinance changes that will make the city better. In Bradley, Massachusetts, on the other hand, outrage over homosexuality and murder threaten to destroy the fabric of the town. The town became divided between "us and them," leaving disaster in its wake. The Year of Needy Girls explores how a community responds to crisis.

Like many towns, Bradley has poor people, immigrants, and middle and elite classes. Deidre, a teacher, wants to live and work on the right side of town. Her partner SJ, a librarian, seeks to find meaningful work in the poorer section of the community. From the outside, their relationship is secure; their employers know that they are lesbians and are accepting of it. However, inside the house, the couple is drifting apart, keeping secrets from each other,  and feeling the stress of trying to maintain a normal life within the community.

There are several story lines at play in Patricia Smith's The Year of Needy Girls, which was published yesterday. Maybe too many. A young boy disappears and is discovered sexually assaulted and dead several days later. The town becomes very fearful for its children. Then Deidre, who works in a private girl's high school is accused of molesting one of her students, and the terror the community is feeling over the death of the young boy erupts into ugliness and homophobia. Everyone suffers from the fallout although the resulting witch hunt lacks tension and suspense, which leaves the reader feeling rather blah.

The tension in the plot is all internal, both for the characters and for the reader. We know from the outset what is going to happen, and in general, we know how the characters are going to respond.  Publisher's Weeklysays that Smith's "crisp prose and dedication to realistic moral ambiguity" makes for an interesting read. I understood and related to the moral ambiguity, but as a retired teacher, I knew that Deidre was too dedicated to her students and was constantly being too accommodating and affectionate with the "needy girls" at the school. Something was bound to happen, and her own ambiguity over her response to the girls was very disquieting. One of the first things a teacher learns is to not get emotionally attached to your students—and to NEVER hug a student. The tragedy of the book is that Deidre's brilliant and dedicated teaching gets lost in scandal.

The reviewer in Kirkus Reviews felt that the author was attempting to do too much and the plot was too easily resolved. A much better exploration of women teachers in private girls' schools is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Spark. Mystic River by Lehane explores with much more tension the abduction and sexual exploitation of a child. I am not sure that I can wholeheartedly recommend The Year of Needy Girls, but read the reviews, borrow the book from the library, and make your own appraisal. 

Just as I was posting this review, I opened today's Washington Post. The headline article was about an elementary teacher and his husband who were accused of abusing 8 boys. They killed themselves to avoid the investigation and prosecution. So, the topic of teachers and sexual exploitation is not going away, and teachers need to be extremely vigilant as they work with their students. On that topic, Patricia Smith's exploration is valuable and insightful.